Around about 104 years ago Robert Tressell wrote a book that George Orwell called the “book everyone should read” and then, after publisher disinterest, chucked it on the fire. His daughter saved it from the flames and, after her father had died, persuaded publisher Grant Richards to take a chance on it.
And that is very much the story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: championing by those that believe in a world that seems indifferent to its ideas.
The original manuscript, charred as it may be, is now held in the TUC archives — a relic of the power in a union. It is remarkably close to the book you would read today, but the version that was published 100 years ago this year was an abridged version (down from 250,000 to 100,000 words) with a lot of the left-wing polemic taken out. It was also cut to end on a depressing note: implying that all these socialist idealists could do to change things would be to commit suicide.
The book follows Tressell’s real life closely: he was a member of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation, and painter and decorator in Hastings.Worried about being blacklisted because of his views, he picked a pseudonym after a decorator’s table, Hastings became Mugsborough and you feel that Robert Noonan became Frank Owen, a talented, honest but heartbreakingly poor man. Apart from the bosses, almost every man, woman and child in Mugsborough is constantly hungry and terrified about what the next day would bring: a foreman such as Nimrod taking a dislike to you would mean starving in weeks.
My wife, Libby, gave me a copy when we were courting, and I devoured it: howling and highlighting my way through it as it talked again and again of not just historical cruelty but of an unfairness that it is still part of life today. Reading it as the government passed edict after edict dividing the poor into the deserving and the undeserving, much as the charities and corporations do in the book, listening to stories of people forced onto zero hour contracts, not knowing if they had work from one day to the next, horrified seeing of working people forced to on food banks, starving, was like being part of a link through time. It was a good time for her to recommend it. I can’t say it changed me, I was already a Marxist, but it filled me with a spirit to keep fighting.
I also wondered if she wanted me to pick up some tips about wallpapering.
She’d first been given it in her teens by her grandfather. He had been a life-long Tory voter who had, conveniently for this story, also been a painter and decorator in a small town in south of England. He read at the age of 80, and it did change him: he stopped voting Conservative, switched from the Sun to the Mirror, and heroically starting using the Colchester Labour Club — at the other side of town — rather than the Conservative Club which was just across the park from his house.
Libby was a school contemporary of Labour MP Stella Creasy, who claims to have read the book at the age of 9: there must have been something in the Essex water at that time.
In the book Frank Owen spends much of his time not so much trying to convert his workmates to the cause, but trying to get them to take an interest in how the system controlled them. Buying pamphlets and books to lend to them in the hope that it might wake them up. They — the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — are his targets, and the focus of his anger rather than his sympathy: “They were the enemy! They were the real oppressors! They were the people who were really responsible for the continuation of the present system … No wonder the rich despised them and looked upon them as dirt. They were despicable. They were dirt. They admitted it and gloried in it.”
But he keeps trying all the same.
Kevin Jones first read the book as “an immature 14 year-old” in 1969. He had got a job as an apprentice at a local firm of painters and decorators in Liverpool and his dad, a trade unionist, gave him the book and told him to “watch out for the Nimrods”.
“Like many teenagers, I had no interest in anything remotely political, “Kevin told me. “I did read the book however and I remember quite enjoying it, although mainly I think because of the humour, like the flabby and flatulent Rev Belcher. Any relevance to the ‘real world’ just went completely over my head.
“The painting job did not last long. Many of my friends were working in factories and being paid far more than me. Work was plentiful at that time and the local glass industry was flourishing, so I handed my notice in, gave up the apprenticeship, and went to work making glass bottles.”
A decade later times had changed, and Kevin found himself on the dole. 1981 was a bad year for him: his dad died of cancer at the age of 51, he was going through a divorce and, along with hundreds of others in Thatcher’s first recession, he lost his job.
Then in the local library he spotted a familiar title: “The humour was still there, but I could see for the first time just how real it was. Every character was recognisable, every situation it described could be related to my life.
“The anger welled up inside me as I read of and recognised the injustices, the malpractices, the exploitation, the lying, the cheating, the greed and selfishness displayed by the employers and the upper classes. I understood for the first time the blatant hypocrisy of so many of those who profess to be Christians.
“That anger was intensified ten-fold as I recognised the apathy of those philanthropists who suffered most. It reminded me of my own 14 year-old self. ‘Why would anybody bother their heads about politics?’ ‘It’s not for the likes of us.’
“I realised that much of the anger that I felt was directed at myself. It forced me to re-evaluate my life.”
The Association of the Ragged Trousered
Kevin is now chairman of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, a society dedicated to spreading the word of the book: “Like many, many others I recommended it to anybody who would listen. I lost copies by lending them out only for them not to be returned. I started to collect second hand copies at car boot sales and charity shops so that I could pass them on to friends.”
“I got talking to a colleague in the pub about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its history of being passed from hand to hand. We then each pledged that we would try to give away one copy per month to a stranger. Neither of us had any clear idea of exactly what we wanted to do other than to introduce Tressell’s book to as many people as possible.
“We launched the association at the Tolpuddle Festival in July 2012, a non-profit group, membership is free and we are open to all. Our membership remains relatively small at present although geographically, our membership is spread throughout England Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as well as Spain and Germany. Each helping to spread the word about the book in their own individual way.”
One of the ways they spread the word is to spread the book, copies are bought and left around for people to find — the books tracked by number and containing a message of solidarity from the association. Frank Butterfield from Lancashire picked up a copy from the association in a bar in Spain and by return left his story online:
“I attended a socialist Sunday school in the 40s and 50s where the book was used in classes, in those days there was only the abridged edition available but the impression the book had on me has lasted me all my life and has always been the basis of my political views. I always have a copy on my bookshelf, and have given away half a dozen copies over the years.”
It’s difficult to find an enthusiast who just saw the book on Amazon and bought it, everyone has a story. Actor and activist Ricky Tomlinson is one of those interviewed for a new documentary Still Ragged: 100 Years of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:
“This book was given to me when I was in solitary confinement, by the prison governor. It’s something that changed my whole way of thinking. It’s the most important book I’ve ever read in my life. Not only did it change my life politically, it also stirred up again in me the beauty of reading.”
Firebrand MP Dennis Skinner tells the makers how “it might be about painters and decorators in a small southern town, but it applies today.” The film also contains a version of the book’s centrepiece of rhetoric: The Great Money Trick.
The Great Money Trick
Tressell uses the workers’ dinner breaks as an opportunity for a lecture, much as he uses the work time to praise honest craftsmanship over the cutting of corners. For this, Frank Owen opens his dinner basket and takes his bread, alongside that borrowed from his workmates, and uses it to represent “the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind”.
Capitalists pay the workers to turn those raw materials into usable goods, and are paid money — but only enough money to buy enough of those goods to survive. The capitalists end up with a surplus, and all the money they started with. “As for the working classes […] having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work — they had nothing.”
Anyone who doesn’t think this happens in the modern day need only to think about Walmart — the biggest retailer in the World — who last year launched a charity food drive for its own staff rather than pay them enough to live on.
George Moore, who at 17 has directed a self-funded film version of the book, described how he felt when he first understood how it worked:
“ I was crying ‘Why does nobody know about this?’. I do think we are stuck in the Great Money Trick - I try not to get too political in conversation , but I have found myself performing the trick with chips in a restaurant on occasion. It brings out the same reaction every time, whether on stage, on screen or in real life - people stop and realise that this isn’t just a theory - it’s applicable to everyone’s life in one way or another, and it definitely still happens today.”
While I was asking about the book several people, including Moore, commented that the book was “halfway between Orwell and Dickens”, and there are similarities. Tressell has a Dickensesque way with a name: the bosses are Crass, Slyme and Hunter and the local Tory MP is Sir Graball D’Encloseland. However what that might hold up in style it isn’t true in message. Orwell himself said that Dickens was not interested in challenging or changing the status quo, that there is “no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’.” George Orwell said that Dickens was not a ‘revolutionary’ writer: but Robert Tressell is, every page of the book aches for the overthrow of the capitalist order.
Kevin Jones: “As Tressell himself points out, the inequalities and the exploitation will not, and can not change under Capitalism. In his time it looked for a while as if socialism might eventually triumph. Certainly socialism has had it’s successes, most notably the NHS and the welfare state both of which are now under attack. The Labour Party it seems have now abandoned even any pretence of socialism and although there are many, many socialists out there, the lack of one unified left wing party, I fear, means that socialism will probably never attain power through the ballot box. Global capitalism makes any change of the system highly unlikely. Revolution? Well I think that as the rift between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as it inevitably must in the present system, then eventually there will inevitably be revolt.”
But even these champions of Tressell’s ideas are not too optimistic. Moore is worried by the working class lack of interest: “A key theme of the book echoes the idea that: all selfishness needs in order to win is apathy. If nobody takes an interest in politics, it will be swayed and manipulated by the selfish few.” While Jones can be as disheartened as Frank Owen, “the ‘philanthropists’ in the book are a stark reminder of just how much inequality and deprivation some people are willing to accept.”
I also spoke to Daz Wright, who said it was one of many factors that influenced him to work in the public sector. He picked up the book “because one of housemate’s dad was always going on about it. He was a committed Labour party member who annually stands in completely unwinnable council seats. We’d talked about what you can learn from it and how it was salient today. But no, I don’t think the book has had an effect. I think it is largely read by an exclusive left wing intelligentsia and we are peculiarly incapable of ever effecting change.”
For all that, people will still keep reading, believing and spreading that message. As Kevin Jones told me “There is a saying in Liverpool that ‘for every person Karl Marx introduced to socialism, Robert Tressell introduced ten.’ Most people would certainly agree that the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is far more readable than Das Kapital.”
The book doesn’t end on revolution, it doesn’t end with better conditions for the workers, it doesn’t even end with a comeuppance for the foreman or the bosses — it ends with a fairly simple twist that makes life bearable for Frank Owen and some of the other workers you’ve been building solidarity with. And that’s its great achievement, for all its anger at the unengaged, it makes you believe in solidarity more than anything else.
I’m recommending that if you haven’t read it already, you should now. You can read it online for free, buy it yourself, or wait until someone lends it to you. If you read it you’ll be doing the lending soon. As well as taking great care to do thorough preparation before you get out the brush and the emulsion.
Not everything I know about socialism and capitalism came from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but everything I know about painting and decorating did.
Photo CC By: Eric the Fish
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the article, and especially my other half: who not only gave me the book, but gave me the story (and is a damn fine editor).